Food & Drink

What you need to know about ice wine, New York's wintry nectar

True ice wine is left long after harvest season to freeze on the vine, then pressed while frozen. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
True ice wine is left long after harvest season to freeze on the vine, then pressed while frozen. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

From one of the country’s most-prolific wine-producing states comes one of the country’s rarest wine styles. The state is New York, and the style — ice wine — results in mere drops of liquid per year, relative to traditional table wines nationwide.

The grapes used to make this pour rely on arctic weather to bring out their sweet, summery flavors, which means that California, the nation’s wine behemoth, has little chance of catching this East Coast contender in a race. Not that California is even trying — it can’t. The production of ice wine is more of a waiting game, and the winners come in last.

These decadent nectars send forth heady aromas of apricots, peaches, pears, tropical fruits and honey so distinct that you sometimes don’t even need to stick your nose down into a glass to smell them. The flavors are just as expressive, with beautiful streaks of balancing acidity. New York ice wines pair well with fruit desserts and cheese, from hard and aged to tangy and blue. The wines can also be enjoyed with savory dishes, like seared foie gras, various pates, salty cured meats and foods with spicy heat. Serve these wines well chilled, as the name suggests.

A small amount of New York ice wine is produced in the Niagara Escarpment AVA (American Viticultural Area) on the southern shore of Lake Ontario, west of Rochester and north of Buffalo. But most New York ice wine comes from the Finger Lakes region, southeast of Rochester, where the state’s first ice wine was made in 1981.

The grapes — often riesling and the French-American hybrids vidal and vignoles — grow alongside other grapes meant for the state’s table wines, so it’s not as if ice wine grapes are cast off to a northerly, year-round tundra. These grapes need a full growing season of sunshine to properly ripen, just like any other wine grape. When those other grapes have been harvested, ice wine grapes are left to shiver and struggle through the harshest weather the year has to offer. All in the name of sensual pleasure.

This is not late-harvest wine made from grapes affected by Botrytis cinerea (aka “noble rot”). Ice wine grapes are harvested and pressed when frozen. Allowing the grapes to freeze essentially traps water, concentrating the grape’s sugar and acidity, guaranteeing that the extracted syrupy juice will be extra sweet. In the vineyard, the colder the better. Lower temperatures translate to more-concentrated sugar and more-expressive wine.

A mild winter can be disastrous for an ice wine producer — the grapes can rot and fall to the ground before freezing — so winemakers cross their fingers as the growing season comes to its natural end. In Canada and in Germany, the birthplace of this wine style (called “icewine” in Canada, “Eiswein” in Germany), laws dictate a required temperature for an ice wine harvest. There is no temperature law in the United States, but ice wines are protected and must be made from grapes that froze on the vine. An alternative version of this wine style can be made from grapes that are manually frozen after harvest, called “iced wines.” While they can be enjoyable, they are less-expressive than true ice wines. Less expensive too.

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Ice wines are not cheap, especially when you consider that the wines arrive in skinny little half-bottles (375 milliliters). Then again, when you consider how little juice winemakers are able to squeeze from their frozen grapes, in addition to how much extra effort is required to produce this kind of wine, the high prices start to seem reasonable. Think of ice wine as the rare and sublime treat that it is, and suddenly those prices start to make sense.

If you have difficulty finding New York ice wines in retail stores, some are available via online retailers. Another option is to order them directly from the wineries. Below are notes from a recent tasting of both ice wines and “iced wines” from New York. They are listed by style — ice wines followed by iced wines — in ascending order, according to price.

ICE WINES

• 2015 Thirsty Owl Wine Co. Cabernet Sauvignon Ice Wine. Ice wines from red grapes are rarest of all, and this Cayuga Lake AVA wine offers raspberry, plum, stone fruit, smoke and an underlying streak of pomegranate. ($40/375 ml)

l 2016 Casa Larga Vineyards and Winery “Fiori Delle Stelle” Vidal Blanc Ice Wine. Bursting with apricot aromas, this Finger Lakes wine was a beautiful marriage of ripe stone fruit, honey and tangy citrus acidity. ($54/375 ml)

• 2016 Casa Larga Vineyards and Winery “Fiore Delle Stelle -8 Degrees” Ice Wine. This fortified wine consists of 81 percent muscat ottonel, plus riesling and vidal blanc, offering honey, tropical fruit, toffee, nuts, brown sugar, zingy acidity and a long, nutty finish. ($66/375 ml)

• 2016 Boundary Breaks Vineyard Riesling Ice Wine. Savory notes mingle with ultra-ripe pear, mango and a touch of spice in this Finger Lakes wine. (2018 vintage: $70/375 ml)

ICED WINES

• 2015 Lakewood Vineyards Glaciovinum. The grape here is the American red grape Delaware, and in this Finger Lakes iced wine, it offers honey, butterscotch, stone and tropical fruits, plus strawberry-cherry bubble gum notes. ($14/375 ml)

• 2014 Wolffer Estate Vineyard Diosa White Table Wine. An iced wine from Long Island, this one offers tropical notes along with apricot, stone fruits, bright orange citrus and peppery spice. ($37/375 ml)

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